His Blue and Grey Sweater
Patrick was not wearing a sweater the first or the last time that I saw him, even though it was one of his trademarks. He was wearing a suit on both occasions, but when I think of him now, I remember the row of Doc Martens that lined the floor of his closet, neatly paired beneath his collection of sweaters that were suspended from hangers. I remember how they scratched my face, the rash on my stomach that one time, and how that fucking sweater still makes me cry.
I was seventeen when Cora died. My grandmother was not an amiable woman who knitted and baked and maybe smelled of must or mothballs, but a schizophrenic who didn't wear any clothes and ranted about the snow that blinded her and the tap water that burned her skin like acid. There was always a gas leak or paint fumes threatening to blow up our house, and when the nurses came to give her pills she fought them with plastic forks. Cora was the only grandparent I had, so I assumed that's what happened when everyone grew old.
Other than my sister and a few cousins, there was only one young person in attendance at the funeral, an unfamiliar boy who looked like a vampiric Johnny Depp. Since I had not worn stockings as my mother advised, my new shoes were pinching me. I was plodding around the church in bare feet when I saw him. The boy looked like a frail tree after an ice storm, bowing under a heavy coat of glass. His head dipped incredibly low and his white skin, stretched tight over his cheekbones, flashed behind the dark hair that hung in his face. He remained in the pew when his parents joined the Communion procession, and I was surprised that they'd let him refuse because my parents never did.
When my uncles flowed into the center aisle, to escort my grandmother out of the church, I asked my mother, "Who is that boy?"
"His name is Patrick. He lived next door to Uncle Johnny." Her expression, "next door" was being generous, since Johnny lived on a ten-acre property that was mostly woods. The houses were so camouflaged by trees that, if not for the sporadic dispersal of mailboxes along the road, you wouldn't even know that people lived there.
"What's wrong with him?" I asked. He was so small, like he could have been younger than me, though I'd learn he was older.
"Cancer," she said. It was the answer I had expected, but then she added. "His sister had it too. She died. I think last year or the year before."
"How old is he?"
"Your age, I guess. The girl was some kind of basketball star. Tore the family apart when she died."
Because of her mental instability, my grandmother was allowed to be buried in the church cemetery, though she hadn't gone to mass in over forty years. The priest had once visited our house and offered her the Eucharist. "It's poison," she screamed, "Don't bring that thing in here." When he tried to convince her that the tiny white disk was the body of Christ, my grandmother accused him of trying to kill her. This priest would say good things about her at the altar, while I mourned the knitted sweaters I'd never received and the stories I'd missed because she had no lucid memory. What little I knew was passed on by my mother, that Cora's first husband had died in a car accident. The impact sent her into early labor, she gave birth as the funeral took place in the church across town.
Patrick didn't come to the burial or to the lunch at our house afterward, but the following spring he sat in front of me in freshman calculus. He was hard to miss with his pale skin and puffy cheeks, a side effect of the steroids. Patrick wore a baseball cap over his bald head, Gap jeans and a fuzzy blue and grey sweater that shed in a cloud of thin hairs wherever he went. When Patrick sat down, I could see his boxers were blue with gold snails on them. After class, I pointed to his shoes, black Doc Martens, "The same as the last time I met you," I noted. Patrick gave me a peculiar look. He didn't remember me. "I know you," I said. "I know who you are, where you live."
Patrick squinted, trying to distinguish my identity, to remember who I was. To him, I had been just some girl he'd flirted with because we both arrived early enough to chat. The girl he gave his cardboard Starbucks sleeve to and said, "Wear it. A bracelet."
"I'm sorry?" he said.
"Don't you know who I am?"
He was embarrassed, apologetic not knowing.
"You were at my grandmother's funeral. Cora. Last year."
Patrick apologized. "You're John's niece. I was on crazy drugs," he explained. "I don't remember much of that year."
Patrick assumed that because my uncle lived next door to him, I knew everything about his cancer and his sister's death, but I didn't even know her name.
Of course it came back. Everyone knew it had to come back, it was just a matter of time.
That August, I invited Patrick to go to a concert, the Vans Warped Tour.
Patrick declined, "I have a doctor's appointment that day."
I urged him to skip it, to reschedule, and I missed him all day at the concert. While I was jumping in the afternoon heat, sweating and smiling amongst a crowd of strangers, Patrick was getting x-rayed and scanned. That night he told me, "I think I have cancer again."
"What do you mean you think you have cancer?"
"They have to do a biopsy to confirm it, but there's a mass."
I didn't say anything. There was nothing to say.
"But my dad's out of town and I don't want to tell my mom all alone. What should I do? Do you think I should wait?"
"Yes," I said, "Wait."
For an entire week he and I walked with this secret between us, growing in the spongy bone of his pelvis. A kind of growth that couldn't be stopped. And I knew this was worse because all the other times before he'd had surgery, but this was different. This was something that couldn't be cut out.
On the first day of classes after fall break, he was wearing the blue and grey sweater again. Patrick's body was stiff as we walked the campus. He moved like a mannequin, as if one day he'd looked down at his untied shoelaces and froze that way. The radiation had warped his bones. His head, neck, and jawbone all appeared to be fused, which made it difficult to chew and impossible to bend, twist, or turn upward. It hurt if he stood too much, so he spent most of his time sitting down.
Patrick sat down on a bench, outside of Keiss Hall. His rear sat on the front edge of the seat and his head rested on the back of the bench, forming a right triangle with the chair. His spine was the hypotenuse.
A girl in our program walked by with her daughter, dropping her off at day care before class.
"When I have children," he said, even though we both knew that Patrick couldn't have children, was sterilized by years of chemo and radiation, "I want a girl and a boy. Angelina and Tucker."
I nodded, solemnly tossing the names over in my head, imagining their faceshis nose, my eyesthe color of their hair. He then pulled a brown bag out of his satchel. The paper crinkled when he reached his hand into it. "Close your eyes and open your mouth," he said.
"Why?" I smiled coyly, my teeth unexposed. With Patrick, I never knew what to expect. If he had truffles, he wouldn't tell if they were mushroom or chocolate. I'd have to agree to eat it up front to find out.
"Just do it," Patrick ordered, and I did. He put something rather large and bulbous in my mouth, and I tried to expand my jaw to avoid touching it. "Now, bite."
If it had been anyone else asking me, I would not have dared, but I bit the bulb from the stem.
"Chew." It felt like a sack of wormy slugs had exploded in my mouth. The slimy pellets squished between my cheeks and teeth, and my eyes darted around the area looking for a trash can. There were none.
"Swallow. Come on. Swallow. Don't you dare spit it on the ground. Good girl!" My face filled with the surprise of unexpected ejaculate.
"What the hell was that?"
"A fig." Patrick glowed victoriously and followed it with a Hershey Bar chaser. It is the only fig I've ever eaten.
Patrick stood, pulled the sweater over his head. The sweat dripped down his face and his undershirt was soaked in a t-shaped pattern over his chest and back. He squinted into the sun, I touched his hair and my hand got wet. I played with it, shaping it to the center like a mohawk.
Patrick learned that his cancer was terminal later that week. "We always knew it would happen sooner or later," he said.
"So it's sooner."
I was the first person he told. "What should I tell my parents?" he asked. I kept shaking my head, unable to speak. I was trying too hard not to cry.
His cancer was an entity. The tumor was its own being like a baby in a pregnant woman's belly. It grew, and like a new baby it had a purpose. To kill him. Before, it had always been part of a struggle: Patrick against his cancer, and he'd always come out on top. But this last time, the cancer would win. It was just a matter of time.
When Patrick got a new puppy, just shy of his twenty-second birthday, I asked what he called him. It was the look in his eye when he said "Tucker" that told me we were done. Though the return of cancer was always a looming possibility, we kept it undisclosed in some quiet dark place where it belonged. I would sit on his lap, the tumor only a few inches below me in his pelvis, and rest my head on his shoulder, carefully, so I didn't pull on his feeding tube. His sweater scratched my cheek. After a bad infection which sent him to intensive care he said, "I'll kill myself before I go back into the hospital. I'm not going to die like her."
When she was fifteen, his sister had been sent to CHOP in early December for anemia or something like that. They let her go home for Christmas, but brought her right back after the New Year. She never left. The anemia was leukemia, and since Patrick had cancer too, he was unable to donate, even though he was a perfect HLA match. Her bone marrow transplant failed. She suffered while Patrick eased into remission for the first time.
Things got worse. Patrick watched TV at 36, when the volume only went up to 42. My mother, who was also deaf, but for different reasons, watched TV on mute and read the captions, but Patrick was unable to read. "Do you need glasses?" I asked. "No," he said, "Not that kind of trouble seeing." I knew then that he was dying, he was going blind like an old person. He was becoming increasingly incoherent. Deaf. He suffered from dementia, and I was afraid he would forget me. He couldn't make his sentences flow into one another, so I couldn't follow his conversations. He fell asleep mid-word. He was becoming like Cora. All the things that, at nineteen, I had dreamed, would never happen now. No wedding. We would never have children, not even adopted ones. We couldn't even share a meal. It didn't count watching him push Ensure through a feeding tube. Though I'd always had long, healthy nails, perfect for pinching and scratching, I began biting them until they bled. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sit still. I counted hours, minutes, seconds. I counted the calories I ate, pounds I lost. I counted everything that could be assigned a numerical value to fill the time and space surrounding his death.
At the funeral, everything was calm. Time had slowed, stopped it seemed. People moved through the air like molasses. The thickness of the atmosphere was holding them in place, keeping them upright. This stasis claimed everyone, including myself. It took nearly an hour for me to approach the casket. It was open. I leaned forward, pushing my face into his, close enough to kiss. Patrick's face was a powdery mask. He was wearing lipstick, and his hair was wrongly parted on the left side. I was tempted to reach in and muss it up, to wipe the Covergirl off his face, but the molasses in the air held me back. His hands were stone, his fingers filaments of rock. I didn't touch him. I was looking to see his shoes. The same shoes he was wearing the first day we met. It made me smile. Patrick loved those shoes. He would wear them forever.
Patrick's mother had to empty both his and Kelly's rooms. Patrick's father had come from a large family and they were moving to her sister-in-law's. "I cannot live in this house," she'd said and Patrick's father had silently agreed. Since Kelly's death, he'd spent most of his time in the garage and at work, paying for their medical bills. He would not watch his children die. Both his wife and his son had understood this.
His mother let me choose anything I wanted. I saved his clothing, his books, his music, thinking that in saving his things, I was saving him.
There was no way his size 12s would fit my feet, so I selected the grey and blue sweater from his closet. All of the folded clothing in his dresser smelled like the drawer, but this sweater smelled like him. Because of my mother's wool allergy, she'd always bought us cotton, so that's what I wore, until I met Patrick. "You learn to love the itch," he said. It was true, I learned to love it, as if the scratch on my arms came personally from him, and I liked choosing it, like picking out something for him to wear.
That sweater became a security blanket that I refused to wash for the first six months. I slept with it every night and cried when the smell went out of it. Whenever I missed him, I burrowed in the sweater and it felt like he was there. I wore it everywhere at home and when I traveled, and it became my trademark too. There is a photograph of me sitting on Hadrian's Wall in that sweater, kissing the Blarney stone, and peeking out of a castle in Salzburg. I felt like I was rebuilding my life with him by using that blue and grey sweater. When I wanted to touch him, to share something with him, I picked up the sweater, slipped it on like armor, and hugged myself.
One year after Patrick's death, my roommate and I went to Spain and on impulse took a ferry to Morocco. Each city was like a giant nesting doll. It was like traveling through the organs of a stranger's body: through the loops of Henle, and up over the aortic arch. In the heart of each one, street performers, beggars and vendors swirled like storm clouds around a small cluster of moving tourists. It was a relief to find that place where I could stand still and feel the world breathe, beat, and pulse around me like a circus. When I felt the loss and anxiety coming on, I pulled my arms into my sweater and tied the sleeves around my middle to keep from fidgeting too much. Even in the most foreign of places, I never felt displaced. Instead, I was a snail who carried my home on my back.
In Marrakech there was a man who sat behind a table of teeth. The teeth, unlike the food and spices, which came in piles, were spread out in a single layer that covered the table. I thought of the Jews, the Nazi's and Meyer Wolfsheim's molar cufflinks in The Great Gatsby, and how when Patrick was sick I once told him that he looked like he'd escaped from a concentration camp. It was supposed to be a joke, but it had upset him. In Casablanca I walked through ghettos and had tea at Rick's, pretending we were Humphrey and Ingrid. I tried cactus fruit, and nuts that came wrapped in old newspapers, despite the vendors' blackened hands. I ate pigeon, ostrich, and drank absinthe. When my roommate picked the oranges from the trees that lined the streets in Spain, I tasted the sour juice.
For nearly a year I remained faithful to that sweater, carrying it with me everywhere I went, leaving little blue fibers on buses in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. Little grey fibers on the Eurorail through France, Austria, and Prague. It was somewhere in Italy that I left the sweater in the tough, tangled sheets of a cheap hotel bed. I was on a bus, nearly seventy miles away when I reached for the sweater and discovered it was missing. There was no way to go back. I couldn't even recall the name of the town I'd stayed in. Four days later, after a year abroad, I flew home. It was as if I was scattering his ashes all over the world until there weren't any left.
I cried more over that fucking sweater than I ever cried for him, because losing that sweater wasn't something that happened, it was something that I did. It seems so silly and useless to want somebody back once they're gone, but I still want that sweater back, because that sweater still exists in the world, so there is a hope, a chance that one day, we might find each other again. I think of it often. I try to calculate the odds, and then I have to give up and let go what's already gone.